The release of Halo 5: Guardians is the biggest exclusive that the Xbox One has ever seen, both in terms of sales and critical reception expectations. Even the aggressively popular PlayStation 4 has nothing releasing this year that comes even close to Halo’s popularity, making it kind of an easy holiday season for Microsoft this year, but also the year to prove that Xbox One has the most and best games which has been their messaging as of late. 343 Industries again finds themselves in a hard place with all of the above expectations, but also having to prove themselves again as the true caretakers of the beloved Halo franchise going into this generation. Despite Halo 4 being quite a strong game in its own right, 343i took very little risk with their inaugural title, sticking fairly close to the blueprint Bungie developed all of those years ago. With Halo 5: Guardians, 343i claims that this is their Halo, as it will represent their design philosophy going into the future.
Halo 5: Guardians picks up 8 months after the conclusion of Halo 4, with the universe still reeling from awakening of the Forerunner robotic Promethean threat and with Master Chief still mourning the death of his close AI companion, Cortana. During a mission with his newly reunited Spartan compatriots of Kelly, Linda and Frederic, Master Chief receives a strange and mysterious message from an old friend which prompts him into action, disobeying direct orders from the United Nations Space Command military to stand down. To bring him and his “Blue Team” in, the UNSC send in Fireteam Osiris formed of newer Spartans: Office of Naval Intelligence agent and team leader Jameson Locke, ONI xenoanthropologist Olympia Vale, UNSC engineer Holly Tanaka, and former ODST commander Edward Buck.
While hunting the Master Chief is a compelling premise for a game, it’s strange that the franchise returns to the flawed Halo 2 campaign model of switching control between 2 different protagonists, in this case Master Chief and Agent Locke. And even with all of these years to mull the narrative model over, Halo 5 is still far less successful story wise than Halo 2. While Halo 2 was a miserable campaign from a design perspective, it successfully established Master Chief and Covenant Elite heroThe Arbiter as two distinctively interesting characters, so The Arbiter never felt like he was overshadowed by Master Chief. But in Halo 5, it is explicitly clear that Locke is second fiddle to Master Chief himself, as he never gets any meaningful backstory or any standout character moments to set him apart from the big green guy himself. This is a pretty serious issue as the vast majority of the campaign is played from Locke’s perspective.
And to be honest, a lot of Halo 5’s story has some pretty noteworthy problems beyond its mere form. While it’s all fairly coherent unlike Halo 4’s nonsensical story, in also feels like a step back. Halo 4 more successful sub-storyline was between Master Chief and his dying AI friend Cortana, and Halo 5 does move that storyline forward a bit, but by the end it feels like a half step, not helped at all by the fact that you are barely playing as Master Chief so that story simply cannot advance because of how Halo 5 is structured to be more favored toward Locke. If we got a good story and some development of his character, I wouldn’t mind playing as Locke. The problem is that 343i doesn't give you a truly good reason to play as him other than an excuse to go to the Elite home world of Sanghelios and see what the Arbiter has been up to, which is pretty neat, but even that plot line feels underdeveloped. In a lot of ways, it feels like Halo 5 is just setting up for the inevitable Halo 6 with a ton of great hanging plot threads with some truly universe shaking things occurring at the end of Halo 5 which really got me pumped.
But the campaign is not all lost as 343i made some monumental improvements in level design and pacing with Halo 5. The noteworthy epic nature of Halo campaigns is blown up to a huge degree with huge, beautifully layered environments that successfully breaks apart Halo’s rather flat linear progression. Each level is filled with unlockable alternate paths, secret weapon caches and hidden vehicles that made exploring and moving around each campaign mission exciting and enjoyable in a way I haven’t ever really felt about Halo. Well, since Halo 3: ODST, at least.
Halo 5 has thankfully dumped the awkward armor abilities of Halo's past for new movement and offensive abilities that everyone has, without any weird pregame loadout nonsense to get in the way of that. These abilities are: unlimited sprint, a shoulder charge and ground pound which blows away enemies and weak walls opening short cuts and hidden areas, the ability to clamber onto just about any horizontal surface in the game, a short jet-thrust similar to the dash in Call of Duty: Advance Warfare, and finally the ability to aim down the sights of any weapon in the game.
Aiming down the sights in particular just feels like a quality of life addition to the Halo franchise that it was due for a long time now, but does some really clever things like making weird and interesting visual and gameplay hooks which makes aiming down the sights of every weapon (even the energy sword) feel and look great. And in very Halo-like fashion, getting damaged while aiming down the sights knocks you out of this concentrated mode, which is a very fair and effective balance to the added accuracy bonus aiming gives you. But the other new abilities are also incredibly important as they all feel fully realized and expands upon Halo’s already absurdly large toy box of weapons, grenades and vehicles to give you even more ridiculously fun options to engage the enemy and traverse the now more dynamic and layered level design.
This in turn helps the reimagined Halo 5 multiplayer experience. Focused down to small team slayer and objective modes results in some of the most interesting arena multiplayer in not just of the Halo series, but all of console first-person shooters as a whole with varied and dense environments. Halo always felt like a more tactical, plodding shooter compared to the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefront, but with these new abilities you are one of the fastest, most devastating forces in any first-person shooter. All of this is accomplished without sacrificing the fun sandbox and tactical nature of Halo that set it apart from other simple reflex-focused shooters with one of the largest and most effective armories in any Halo game, including completely reworked Promethean weapons from Halo 4 which all now feel valid and not just reskins of other faction weapons.
Even the pure act of shooting a weapon feels massively more satisfying compared to any other Halo game, and indeed for me, Halo 5 is the best first-person shooter of recent memory, easily beating out the likes of Syndicate, Titanfall and Wolfenstein: The New Order with its breadth and variety of combat and traversal options. In a lot of ways, it feels like Halo has regained its console first-person shooter throne which Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare took away last during the last generation of consoles.
Halo 5 also adds the single best large scale multiplayer mode in Halo franchise history with the 24-player Warzone mode, which is basically a fusion between Halo 5’s fundamentals and sandbox, with the scale of a Battlefield game and the map control tendencies of League of Legends brewed-in for good measure. Warzone is an escalating mode where players fight over 3 control points where the holding team can spawn from, kill neutral boss AI enemies in the level, and murder enemy Spartans which all contributes to an overall points total. At certain thresholds of points, bigger and better Halo weapons and vehicles are unlocked, upping the tension and severity of the conflict over neutral objectives and control points in really compelling ways with giant maps which successfully nurture these multiplayer wars.
Whom can spawn what weapons and vehicles in is dictated by Halo 5’s new requisitions system. Completing Arena and Warzone multiplayer matches earns you requisition points, which can be used to purchase 3 different tiers of booster packs which earns you either new customization elements from new assassination animations to new armor for your Spartan characters, or cards which can be consumed for a single-use for whatever weapon or vehicle that is printed on the card itself. This helps make sure every Warzone match avoid the extremes of only spawning a single Scorpion tank which everyone fights over, or everyone annoyingly spewing out infinite Scorpions.
Some people will be annoyed by the fact that these requisition packs can be bought with real money, but the fact that Halo 5 literally dumps free requisition packs on you for leveling-up your multiplayer rank or completing specific weapon or vehicle challenges meant that I have never run of out requisition cards to issue in Warzone. Not to mention the fact that you can earn requisition points at a high rate, especially in the Warzone mode itself, so I never felt like I went long stretches of time without unlocking a high-tier requisition pack. Indeed, I love this addicting new system as it adds a new nonlinear progression system that I haven’t seen in a competitive first-person shooter experience before, making every time I open a new requisition pack incredibly exciting. And hey, if you don’t like it, Arena isn’t affected by the requisition system at all.
The one thing that Halo 4 received universal recognition for was its magnificent production design, and 343i maintains, and even blows this out of the water with Halo 5. Every single level, environment, weapon, vehicle, and character looks incredible and also has excellent designs and little details which really bring them to life. 343i got Halo on the right track with more realistic and impactful sound effects, which is only escalated with some of the best weapon sound effects outside of Battlefield developer DICE. The soundtrack is less innovative than Neil Davidge’s controversial electronic soundtrack in Halo 4 (which I loved) and is more familiar, even to the point of remixing old Halo tunes in some cool new ways. It’s a solid score, but is probably one of the least memorable in the Halo series.
The biggest production improvement to Halo 5 though is 343i’s commitment to 60 frames-per-second. It’s instantly recognized and felt in the newly energetic and speedy gameplay of Halo 5, and really ties it all together in a surprising way. I’ve never been a guy who has criticized a game for being 30 FPS or has been crazy about how every game needs to be 60 FPS, but after playing and marinating in Halo 5’s silky presentation, I feel like I’ve been spoiled now on all other first-person shooters going forward. I’ve been doing this whole video game thing for a long time now, and this is the first time where the high framerate of a game really resonated with me, and left a true and irreversible impact on my play experience. It’s such a massive leap in quality for the Halo series, and 343i cannot be commended enough on this achievement on a well-documented underpowered console.
Despite having a weak and underwhelming story, Halo 5: Guardians is by far the best playing, most exciting, most gorgeous, and expertly crafted multiplayer that not only the Halo franchise has ever seen, but of any other shooter experience since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. I’m addicted to the simple act of playing more Halo 5, whether it be singleplayer or multiplayer. 343 Industries finally leaves their mark on the beloved Halo franchise with Halo 5: Guardians, and if they can continue these innovations which Halo 5 has boldly established and improve upon their storytelling, they will far surpass Bungie’s best. I simply cannot wait to finish the fight, again. Until then though, I’m going to play a lot more Halo 5. Like, a lot more.
FIVE OUT OF FIVE
(An exceptional game whose flaws are barely noticeable.)